Newly Released EPA Memo Prompts Call for EPD Action on Rayonier

JESUP, Ga. – Based on a newly obtained assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), The Altamaha Riverkeeper  is calling on Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to withdraw the wastewater discharge permit given to Rayonier Advanced Materials for its pulp plant here.

The EPA memo, released under the Freedom of Information Act, concludes that “the weight of multiple lines of evidence … supports a finding of impairment for the color and odor narrative water quality criteria for the lower Altamaha below the Rayonier plant.”   

In short, it concludes that that the Rayonier plant, which discharges more than 60 million gallons of foul-smelling wastewater per day is not meeting federal Clean Water Act standards. The effluent produced by the pulp plant is a byproduct of its production of cellulose material used primarily in cigarette filters.

“EPA’s findings provide powerful evidence that the visible, foul-smelling pollution of the Altamaha River is much more than a nuisance that prevents people from using the river—it continues to put one of Georgia’s greatest rivers and the communities and wildlife that depend on it at risk,” said Jen Hilburn, Executive Director and Riverkeeper for Altamaha Riverkeeper.  “EPD not only retains the right and power to withdraw the permit, but more importantly it has an obligation to issue a new permit that adequately protects our water quality.”

The Altamaha Riverkeeper has been working for years to get Rayonier AM to update its wastewater treatment capabilities to match those that are now common throughout much of the world. Pollution issues surrounding the plant, including a legacy of massive fish kills, date back to the 1950’s.

In 2015, The RIverkeeper sued EPD for granting a permit that violates the Georgia water quality standards. An administrative law judge ruled in favor of the Riverkeeper. Rayonier appealed to Superior Court in Wayne County where the plant is located. That judge ruled for Rayonier. Because the Wayne County judge may have overstepped in ruling the permit valid, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case, which is where it is today.

In its 2015 action, the Riverkeeper and attorneys for the organization communicated their concerns to EPA but were unaware that the federal agency decided to investigate the claims on its own. The EPZ memo indicates that process began in September of 2016 and continued into March, 2017. The agency reviewed materials and studies it requested from Rayonier and examined the regular water testing work done by Dan Calhoun of the U.S. Geological Survey, which is under contract to Georgia EPD.

“Mr. Calhoun shared that they routinely hear comments from river users downstream of the plant saying that, while the fishing is good, the fish are inedible because of the taste, which is strongly like the smell of the Rayonier discharge,” the EPA memo said. It was authored by Franklin Baker, senior technical advisor of the Water Quality Planning Branch.

The memo also notes that more than 20 miles downstream from the plant at at Glynn County regional park, people often avoid using the beach and swimming there because “the water smells of Rayonier.”

Baker said his review of the evidence led him to this conclusion: “I find that the information suggests that the lower Altamaha River, downstream of the Rayonier plant, is and has been impaired under the GAEPD water quality standards for color and odor.

Read a press release from the Altamaha Riverkeeper and its counsel here.

Contacts:

Jen Hilburn, Altamaha Riverkeeper, jen@altamahariverkeeper.org, 912-441-3908

Hutton Brown, Southern Environmental Law Center, hbrown@selcga.org, 404-226-1210

Don Stack, Stack & Associates, dstack@stackenv.com, 404-525-9205

Dave Paule, GreenLaw, dpaule@greenlaw.org, 404-659-3122

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